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Everything you need to know about Watercolour Pencils

Watercolour Pencils are a great medium on their own or a great addition to your watercolour practice and they definitely aren’t just for kids and inexperienced artists! I feel like they are a bit misunderstood and underrated. 

Watercolour pencils are basically a coloured pencil that is water soluble, meaning the colour dissolves in water. They consist of pigment and a binder that is dry and solid that is encased in a wooden shell. They look just like the pencil crayons we used in elementary school.

To use them, you draw with them on paper and then use a brush and water to wet the drawing and “activate” the pigments. This allows the pigments to come to life and mix on paper, giving the look of a watercolour painting.

I’ve outlined below, some of the pros and cons of watercolour pencils and why you should give them a try. 

Note: It may seem like a long “cons” list, but don’t let that discourage you. Just remember they are different than traditional watercolours and aren’t meant to act as a replacement or create the same end results. They have their own look and lend themselves really well for graphic, sketchy, impressionistic and illustrative styles. 

Pros of Watercolour Pencils

There are a lot of really great things about this medium. For one, they are extremely easy to get started with. Most are sold in sets of 8, 12 (or more) and they are often pre-sharpened and ready to go.  They are generally quite affordable and come in a variety of different price points. You don’t need a palette as mixing is done on the paper, and you also need fewer brushes and brush types, as most of the work is done by the pencils themselves. For more information on supplies, see my section on supplies, below.  

Watercolour pencils are much less messy than traditional paints and are way more portable. This is a huge benefit for apartment dwellers, urban sketchers or anyone who has to fight for space at the kitchen table to create art! They store away easily in a pencil case and the only clean up is a quick rinse of your brush and maybe disposal of some shavings. 

Watercolour pencils also make it really easy to capture detail and fine lines. This is especially true if you are new to art and aren’t as confident with your brush skills.  Creating fine detail with a sharp pencil is super simple.  Watercolour Pencils can make beautiful crisp line work for capturing grasses in landscapes, veins in leaves or flowers or lettering and architectural details. You can even use a ruler when using dry which you can't easily do with a paint brush. 


Cons of Watercolour Pencils

Watercolour pencils do have limitations and it is important to know that they aren't an exact substitute for watercolours. The “colouring” texture or lines you make while applying the watercolour pencils are usually somewhat visible in the final painting. This means, it is quite easy to tell you are using watercolour pencils and not traditional watercolours. This makes them not great for anyone attempting photorealism or needing extremely smooth effects. Some artists simply don’t enjoy the textured look of watercolour pencils. Using hot press paper reduces it, but pencils are still prone to showing their lines and pencil marks, even with meticulous shading.

Watercolour pencils also stay put more on the page so wild and loose washes are not as easy to achieve. However, this can be great for artists that like a bit more control in where they put colour. 

The other main challenge, is that while they may be easier to control on the page, it can be difficult to see your effects in real time.  Colours don’t mix until they are wet and often look different (often lighter) when dry. It sometimes feels like you are painting “blind” because until you wet them, you can’t fully see the final result. There is quite a bit of guesswork involved. For example, if I am trying to layer yellow and red to make orange, I can’t see the final “orange” until the paper is wet and at that point, it is difficult to adjust. 

Like watercolour, the pencils are unforgiving. You can “lift” the paints carefully, but generally, once the colour is on the paper, it is difficult to change or remove. They do allow you to create layers, but there are some limitations to this. 


Watercolour Pencils vs. Inktense Pencils

Many people ask what is the difference between Derwent Inktense Pencils and Watercolour Pencils. You will see me using both. I love Derwent’s Inktense Pencils and use them interchangeably with other watercolour pencils. There are a few key differences but they work the same way as  your standard watercolour pencil. 

They're colours often more intense and are formulated to look more like ink instead of watercolour. The main difference is that they are permanent when dry, so unlike traditional watercolour pencils, when a layer is dry, the pigment doesn’t lift. This makes them really nice if you want to do a lot of glazing and layering using vibrant colours. 

I really enjoy them and recommend them often.  I have even worked with Derwent Canada doing demos using them and their other products. 

Want to Learn More?

I am just about ready to launch an online course on Teachable all about watercolour techniques. Stay Tuned! 

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